Racial Bias in Reader Services – Sally Hamer talk summary

This post is a summary of a conference talk by Sally Hamer which the writer viewed at the the Decolonising Implications in Reader Services workshops hosted by the Decolonising through Critical Librarianship group. Please view the talk here. For a summary of the subsequent discussions at the workshops, please view the DtCL blog post here.

The study had taken place across 24 academic libraries in different geographical parts of England. 6 fictional identities were created, each with a name representing one of the 6 largest ethnic groups from the 2011 census – Arab, Black African, white British, white other, South Asian and East Asian. All of the names were traditionally female and it was ensured that the first and family names could be differentiated by a simple Google search. 1 email was sent a week from each of these fictional identities to 24 institutions for a total of 144 queries. The questions which were asked were completely identical aside from the email signature at the end. 

The responses to the emails were analysed against a set of five criteria derived from the IFLA and RUSA guidelines for how libraries should respond to user enquiries: 

1. Service Provision

2. Clarity

3. Courtesy

4. Approachability

5. Information Literacy

It should be noted that in the subsequent DCL workshop discussions, it transpired that very few librarians had heard of these guidelines; this raises questions as to how well publicised these guidelines are, and whether further promotion in the Cambridge librarian network would be beneficial. 

Although Hamer noted that the sample size was small, there were some clear broad main trends which emerged. 

Firstly, there was generally some unequal treatment which occurred across the board. Some users experienced particularly low quality of service; the user with the Nigerian name was least likely to receive a response from the librarians, least likely to have her question answered when she did receive a response, and there was a notable difference in the level of courtesy she received. (Elements of courtesy here might involve a greeting, a thank you for enquiring, an apology, or a suggestion of where to approach next.) Conversely, the user with the Chinese name had the highest quality of response, with a response to 100% of her enquiries and sometimes several follow-up messages; there were consistently high levels of service provision and courtesy, and she didn’t get passed to other people as she was always having her enquiry answered directly. Hamer noted that the two unequal approaches to customer service provision had an impact on the user’s feeling of belonging within the library; a lower level of service contributes to the feeling of otherness and discrimination, making them less likely to interact with librarians in the future. 

However, a second trend which was observed – this of name-based microagressions – was seen to disproportionately affect the user with the Chinese name. This user was addressed incorrectly more often than correctly; 11% of responses referred to her only by her family name Zhao (which is only a family name and so should not be confused for a personal name), while no other user was referred to only by their family name. This user was also 3-10 times more likely than any other user to have her entire name used; this also happened disproportionately to the user with the Nigerian name. The user with the white British name was the only user never to be addressed by her full name; this suggests a trend in which users with non-British names were referred to more impersonally, perhaps because of unfamiliarity with the family and personal names involved. Microaggressions were more generally linked to trends of low self-esteem, internalised racism, and other mental and physical health impacts; it had also been shown in other studies that Asian students living in the UK had been shown to do noticeably better academically when they adopted a Western name, having a better relationship with their tutors and peers, demonstrating the impact a name can have on one’s sense of belonging. As such, it was shown to be incredibly important to address all users correctly and courteously – it is worth noting that in this study, all family names could be distinguished from personal names by a simple Google search. 

The third and final trend which was noted was the lack of adherence to the established guidelines for customer service across the board. Some elements of the guidelines were widely adhered to – for example, response rate (librarians responded to over 90% of queries, providing answers to around 40%), response time (70% of responses were given within three hours and over 90% in one day), and some elements of clarity and courtesy (greeting and closing phrases, thanks, and signatures all being included). However, other elements of courtesy were sometimes lacking – including apologising if a question couldn’t be answered, inviting the user to follow up, and offering concluding remarks. Hamer noted that promoting information literacy, providing contact details, and so on both help the user in their enquiry and help them feel encouraged to ask questions in the future. Elements of clarity were also lacking. 

Hamer concluded that, since so much of this behaviour is necessarily unconscious (few of us would consciously consider ourselves to be making racist judgements!) it can be difficult for service providers to recognise elements of bias in their interactions and adapt their own behaviour consistently. As such, a good solution would be to adhere to best practice guidelines, such as those proposed by IFLA and RUSA, which propose a checklist of elements for every interaction (such as addressing someone by name, and service provision, increasing awareness of other follow-up options, and so on). However, this comes with the very large caveat that best practice guidelines themselves don’t always refer to ethnic and racial bias explicitly – including those proposed by IFLA and RUSA. Racial bias should be explicitly mentioned for guidelines to be truly anti-racist.

– Katherine Knight

1 thought on “Racial Bias in Reader Services – Sally Hamer talk summary

  1. Pingback: Reader Services workshop – Decolonising through critical librarianship

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